Ballets Jazz de Montreal (BJM) brings their program Dance Me to the National Arts Centre on July 11 and 12. I had the opportunity to speak with Louis Robitaille, the artistic director of the company, ahead of their tour.
“It’s special. We wanted to have something that would, first of all, allow us to touch a little part of Leonard Cohen’s talent. More like a testimony to Mr. Cohen and his talent: all the respect, care and love, admiration for the artist but also for the man. As far as I’m concerned, it’s probably the most personal project in my [career as] artistic director,” Robitaille said.
BJM is an extraordinary company that has travelled worldwide with their dance. “We are starting our 47th season—so it’s the second-oldest dance company in Montreal, after Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal,” said Robitaille. “We are a touring dance company—one of the dance companies in Canada that tours the most. Basically, the planet is our playing ground and we have 14 permanent artists who are all very special. The Mr. Cohen project was one of my concerns—to expose people outside of Canada to his fabulous talent and heritage.”
Robitaille spoke passionately of the project and said that Dance Me was “a coincidence that happened. The first idea to create something on Mr. Cohen [happened] when the company called me, when we were on tour, to submit a file for the 375th anniversary of Montreal.” A long-time fan of Cohen, Robitaille said, “I went to see him once when I was younger. I was a dancer then and I was thinking as a dancer and [wanted] the privilege to perform to Cohen’s music, and it never happened. I got this call and it took me 30 seconds to decide on Mr. Cohen.”
The idea from the start “was to create an evening on Mr. Cohen’s life. It was kind of a tribute to the career of a man.” Cohen was still alive when BJM made this decision. Robitaille said it “wasn’t something we decided when he passed away. I believe he decided to support it because he knew the company and he was from Montreal. It was his request to include nothing on his private life. That wasn’t the project—it was to basically to go through from his first to his last album and choose some well-known classic songs and some not so well-known to create something of BJM’s personality.”
“I remember once, after a press conference, one person telling me ‘I really don’t know how you can dance to his music.’ I told him: Just watch us.”
The performance incorporates dance and visual elements to really encapsulate the spirit of Leonard Cohen. “It’s ballet des arts—which is really on the human scale. We also use tech projections to support the action on stage to give another dimension. We created a shadow of Cohen, which appears sometimes in home video, or a silhouette on stage dressed as Mr. Cohen. It’s an hour and 25 minutes without intermission to allow the audience to really dive into it.”
While the project was met with some apprehension, Robitaille refused to indulge it. He said, “I remember once, after a press conference, one person telling me, because the project was at the beginning, ‘I really don’t know how you can dance to his music.’ I told him: Just watch us. I see it in the audience, the attention as the performance is progressing; you can also feel the emotions. People are very attentive or they move in their chair, or cry, or laugh, because we develop a lot of emotions. I believe it breaks this idea that Mr. Cohen is dark, lyrical—he was not at all. That’s why it was very important to create a modulation in rhythm through the evening.”
My favourite part of my discussion with Mr. Robitaille touched on people’s (unwarranted) hesitance to see dance. “There’s this barrier thinking about dance and, if you want to be really honest, there’s good dance and bad dance. I believe many people see dance for the first time and they realize it’s not that inaccessible. Dance, when it’s well done, can inspire people, bring joy. One of my objectives, my goals, since I became a dancer is to bring joy to people, to the discipline of dance,” Robitaille said. “I went for the first time in my life to a hockey game and I had as much fun as [when I] see a good performance or rock band. It’s difficult, you need to know a little bit—choose. The one difficult aspect is, you see a bad movie, you’ll go again to a movie theatre. You see a bad dance, you will not go back to dance.”
On that note, don’t miss BJM’s performance of Dance Me. The company will also take part in the 2019 Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill on July 1.
Ballets Jazz de Montreal’s Dance Me takes the stage at the National Arts Centre on July 11 and 12 at 8pm. The performance runs approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are available online and range from $31 to $97. Student tickets are available for this show.